- Kristen Stuppy, MD
What's Your Homework Battle Plan?
Any parent with school aged children knows that homework can be a battle. Even good students can procrastinate, prefer to play, or have practice after school, leaving little time for homework. Then there are the kids who struggle…
We all know that kids need help with homework. Sometimes parents help too much. Kindergarten projects should not look professionally done. Even when kids hate doing the work, they need to do it. If they cannot, you need to talk to the teacher to get the work scaled to what they can accomplish. Don’t do it for them.
Step back, one step at a time.
As kids get older, parents should offer less and less help.
It makes sense that young elementary school students will need help learning to organize their things and plan the appropriate amount of time to complete homework and projects.
If they are not asked to assume more responsibility over the years, many will never take over the tasks that they can be capable of doing.
The goal is that by the later half of high school teens can organize their work, schedule their time efficiently, and get it done without reminders. I know that sounds impossible for many kids, but if your senior is still needing you to nudge daily for homework, they will not survive when they leave home. Mommy isn’t there to remind anymore.
I’ve written in another blog about what kids need to know to leave the nest if you want to think about all the things they need to be responsible to do.
How can you help your kids with homework without letting it become your problem?
I am a firm believer that kids are the students, not the parents.
Kids need to eventually take ownership of their homework and all other aspects of school. Of course, for many kids this is easier said than done, but I hear all too often of college kids who have Mommy call the Professor to question a grade.
That is totally unacceptable.
Kids need to practice ownership from early on. Parents need to guide always, but manage less and less as the kids grow.
Not every solution comes from a cookie cutter mold. Kids have different personalities and abilities.
You know your kids best. Think how they work and what makes them tick.
All kids need the basics
Many parents underestimate the problem with missing out on basics: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
If kids don’t get the amount of sleep they need, healthy foods, and regular exercise, they will not be as successful academically.
After school have a set time for kids to eat a healthy snack and get a bit of exercise. Both help make homework time more productive!
I have blogged on this previously on this post about developing self confidence. I really feel that finding balance is important for everyone for mental and physical health and success.
Find the right solution
Kids have different problems with homework at different times, and they each deserve their own solutions.
Not one of these “types” fits every child perfectly.
Most kids have more than one of these qualities, but tend to fit into one type best.
There is always something more fun to do than work. Kids will put off overwhelming tasks or big projects because, well, there’s a lot to do.
Have a planner with everything from sleep, extracurriculars, eating, and homework all in there. Put preferred activities after the non-preferred activities, so there's something to look forward to when done!
Don’t just ask what homework they have due tomorrow, but also if there are any big projects due in the near or later future. See if they can estimate how much time it will take to do the project and help them plan how much to do each night to get it done on time.
Breaking big assignments or long worksheets into small pieces with short breaks in between can help kids focus. Use a timer for breaks or do a fun quick activity, like silly dance to one song.
Allow kids to have some “down” time after school for a healthy snack (brain food) and to run off energy. Limit this time with a timer to 30 minutes or so. The timer helps kids know there is an end point to the fun, and then it’s time for work. Play can resume when work is done correctly.
For more procrastination avoidance tips, visit Finish Tasks. It was written for teens, but has tips anyone can use!
People with ADHD tend to have time blindness - a lack of awareness about time. Practice time awareness:
Have your child estimate how much time an assignment will take.
Time how long it actually takes.
Compare the differences and think about what caused the difference.
Repeat for all tasks.
Track improvements in estimation over time.
Poor Self Confidence:
Kids who are afraid they won’t understand their homework might fear even starting.
They might blame the teacher for not teaching it correctly.
Some might complain that they are stupid or everyone else is smarter.
They blame the class for being too loud, causing distraction and therefore more homework.
Or they might complain of chronic headaches or belly aches due to anxiety.
All of these are problems with a fixed mindset. Many kids suffer from the negativity of a fixed mindset, but you can help them learn to have a growth mindset.
Praise kids when they do things right and when they give a good try, even if they have an incorrect answer. Praising effort builds their resilience and growth mindset. If you focus on the outcome, they develop a fixed mindset, which is associated with less success overall.
Be honest, but try to think of something positive to tell them each day. When they don’t meet expectations, first see if they can see the mistake and find a solution themselves. Guide without giving the solution. Then praise the effort!
Find their strengths and allow them to follow those. If they are poor in math but love art, keep art materials at home and display their projects with pride. Consider an art class.
Remember to budget time. Over scheduling can result in anxiety, contributing to the problems.
While the desire to do everything right has its benefits, it can cause a lot of anxiety in kids.
These kids think through things so much that they can’t complete the task.
See also the “poor self confidence” section above, because these kids are at risk for feeling they are failures if they don’t get a 100% on everything. They can have melt downs if the directions don’t make sense or if they have a lot of work to do.
Help with organization
Help your child learn organizational techniques, such as write down assignments and estimate time to do each project.
Plan how much time to spend each day on big projects and limit to that time.
Help them review their progress in the middle of big projects to see if they are on track. If not, have them establish another calendar and learn to review why they are behind.
Watch for self blame
Watch for self-blame when things don’t go well. We all tend to have negative thinking, but we can learn to think more positively.
Is it because one step took longer than projected, they were invited to a movie and skipped a day, they got sick and were not able to work…
This helps plan the next project and builds on planning skills. Use failures as growing experiences, not something to regret!
Build self confidence
Remember to give attention and praise for just being your kid. These kids feel pressure to succeed, but they need to remember that they are loved unconditionally.
If you notice they have an incorrect answer, state “that isn’t quite right. Is there another way to approach the problem?”
Not everything is about the grade. Praise the effort they put into all they do, not the end point. Make positive comments on other attributes: a funny thing they said, how they helped a younger child, how they showed concern for someone who was hurt.
Leave the comfort zone
Encourage them to try something new that is outside their talent.
Not only are they exploring life, but they are developing new skills, and learning to be humble if they aren’t the best at this activity. Help them praise others.
Model this behavior in your own life.
Helicopter parenting is a term often used to describe the parent hovering over the child in everything they do. This does not allow a child to learn from failing. It does not allow a child to grow into independence.
It involves the parent “owning” the homework. These kids call home when they leave the homework or lunch on the kitchen table for Mommy to bring it to school. They often grow up blaming everyone when things don’t go their way and Mommy can’t fix it. These kids don’t learn to stand up for themselves. They seem constantly immature with life situations.
Slowly give ownership
Young children need more guidance, but gradually decrease this as they get older. Teachers can help guide you on age appropriate needs, but they might not recognize that kids with ADHD are often 3-5 years behind their peers in skills that involve executive functioning.
Your 10 year old with ADHD might need the support typically given to 5-8 year olds, but that does not mean they should rely on you to the same degree year after year. They must also continue to grow.
Most parents must sign a planner of younger kids, but as kids get older the kids become more responsible for knowing what the homework is. Many schools now have websites that parents can check homework assignments, but be sure the kids own the task of knowing what is due too.
Have a place that children can work on homework without distraction (tv, kids playing, etc).
ADVISE, BUT DON’T DO IT
Be available to answer questions, but don’t do the work for them. If they need help, find another way to ask the question that might help them see the solution. Get a piece of scrap paper that they can try to work through the problem. If they have problems with reading comprehension, have them read a few lines then summarize to you what they read. They can take notes on their summary, then read the notes after the entire chapter to get a full summary.
Busy, busy, busy:
Some kids are really busy with after school activities, others just rush through homework to get it done so they can play.
SET LIMITS ON SCREEN TIME
Set limits on how much screen time (tv, video games, computer time) kids can have each week day and week end.
If they know they can’t have more than 30 minutes of screen time, they are less likely to rush through homework to get to the tv or computer.
It used to be recommended no more than 10 hours a week for screen time, but newer guidelines are more flexible. This is because the quality of screen time can vary considerably and it is constantly changing. Many kids require screen time for homework.
The big thing is that kids need balance. They should still have the opportunity to play with friends in real life. Kids need exercise. They should learn to problem solve through interactions with friends. Too many hours on a screen diminish the time with real people and in active play.
DO IT RIGHT
Ask kids to double check their work and then give to you to double check if you know they make careless mistakes.
Don’t correct the mistakes, but kindly point them out and ask if they can find a better answer.
Once they learn that they have to sit at the homework station until all the work is done correctly, they might not be so quick to rush.
If there was one thing that was good about the lockdown at the start of the pandemic, it was that families stayed home. They weren't overscheduled, so they could learn to appreciate each other and quality time alone. It wasn't ideal for prolonged periods, but it did help kids get more sleep and have time to explore interests, such as music and art. Unfortunately, as soon as it was possible, many of us got back to our multiple extracurricular activities and commitments.
If kids have after school activities the time allowed for home work and down time are affected. Avoid over scheduling, especially in elementary school.
Be sure they have time for homework, sleep, healthy meals, and free time in addition to their activities.
Are the activities really so important that they should interfere with the basic needs of the child? Is the child mature enough to handle the work load?
It is generally recommended to allow kids to do up to their age in number of hours of extra curricular activities. A 10 year old can do up to 10 hours of extra curriculars per week. This means they really shouldn’t take dance class 3 hours a day 4 days a week. That’s too many hours. And remember it all adds up: sports, music lessons, scouts – don’t over schedule!
When they can’t sit still
Kids who are in constant motion can’t seem to sit still long enough to do homework. Be sure they have the proper balance of sleep, nutrition, and exercise or all else will fail.
Praise their efforts when they are successful.
Set a timer after school to let them play hard for 30 minutes, but then make them get work done.
Help little ones organize what needs to be done and break homework into several smaller jobs.
Set regular 5 minute breaks every 30 minutes so they can release energy. Set a timer to remind them to get back to work and compliment them when they get back on task.
For more organization tips, see this blog on finishing tasks..
DON’T REQUIRE SITTING STILL
Some kids do better staying focused if they can stand to work. If you have a table, counter or desk that fits their height when standing, let them use it. When standing helps, try to problem solve places that they can do it to help with productivity!
If your kids need movement, let them wiggle. Kicking the legs or constant wiggling helps some kids.
Fidget items can help, so let your child use them as long as they don’t become a play item that distracts.
If you have an exercise ball, let them sit on it. No ball? Try a pillow on a chair.
If kids wait to do homework until evening hours, it might not be as productive and it can interfere with getting to sleep.
When we’re tired, we don’t stay as focused, so everything takes longer. We constantly need to refocus. We don’t learn as well, so studying is less effective.
If homework requires getting on a computer or tablet, the light exposure suppresses the melatonin level. Melatonin is needed to feel tired and go to sleep. If kids are on a screen too close to bedtime, they will struggle to fall asleep. Try to get them to do all work that requires a computer done first. Ideally all screens will be off at least 1-2 hours of bedtime.
I see far too many teens who stay up far to late studying. They need to find a way to start homework earlier if at all possible. I know this is difficult with work and extracurricular schedules, but that brings us back to avoiding over scheduling…
Additional needs for people with ADHD
For people with ADHD who benefit from stimulant medications, it is best to do all the non-preferred tasks during the time the medication is active. They can focus more easily on preferred tasks, so save those until later.
While they might need a short break after school before homework, spending hours on their favorite video game delays starting homework too long.
Once medication wears off, it's hard to focus and a little homework takes a long time, which is frustrating to the child. They also won’t retain as much information they’re studying and they’re more likely to make silly mistakes or have unreadable handwriting.
If your child struggles due to school followed by activities and then homework, talk to their physician about adjusting medications to fit their needs.
Struggling despite help:
There are many reasons kids struggle academically. Reasons vary, such as behavior problems, anxiety, illness, learning disabilities, bullying, and more.
WORK WITH THE TEACHER
If they are struggling academically, talk with the teacher to see if there are any areas that can be worked on in class or with extra help at school.
Can the teacher offer suggestions for what to work on at home?
TALK TO YOUR CHILD’S PHYSICIAN
If kids have chronic pains or school avoidance, ask what is going on.
Depression and anxiety aren’t obvious and can have vague symptoms that are different than adult symptoms.
Bullying can lead to many consequences, and many kids suffer in silence.
If your child won’t talk to you, consider a trained counselor.
Talk with your pediatrician if your child is struggling academically despite resource help at school or if he suffers from chronic headaches or tummy aches. Treating the underlying illness and ruling out medical causes of pain is important. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other learning disorders can be difficult to identify, but with proper diagnosis and treatment, these kids can really succeed and improve their self confidence!